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Surge in prison attacks has Minn. COs demanding change

COs question whether the new measures implented after Officer Joseph Gomm’s July 18 murder truly increase safety or are ineffective Band-Aids


By Liz Sawyer
Star Tribune

STILLWATER, Minn. — Even by prison standards, Dave Campbell had a dangerous job.

The 50 Stillwater inmates he guarded alone had access to razor blades, hammers and wrenches. No cameras watched his back.

“It was a blatant disregard for safety,” said Campbell, a longtime corrections officer who frequently raised concerns with his managers. Last summer, the Marine Corps veteran quit shortly after suffering a panic attack.

One year later, the man who took his place was bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

Employees have long warned that it would take a fatal attack to improve security for Minnesota Department of Corrections officers who guard the state’s most dangerous criminals. Those with knowledge of the situation inside prison walls say an officer shortage — paired with a swelling population of offenders — greatly increases the danger those officers face daily. Understaffing has prompted forced overtime, an additional stressor for workers who are often required to pull double shifts with no notice.

DOC Commissioner Tom Roy has vowed that the issues are not going unaddressed. “Our top priority is protecting the safety of all officers and individuals at all Minnesota correctional facilities,” he said.

Since officer Joseph Gomm’s July 18 murder, the agency has eliminated Stillwater’s metal fabrication program, added cameras to industrial areas and required guards to work in pairs when monitoring large groups in that space.

But more officers question whether the new measures truly increase safety or are ineffective Band-Aids to placate a disgruntled workforce.

And despite the changes, a surge in violence directed at employees has continued inside state prisons, causing morale to plummet and triggering an exodus of workers from Stillwater and Oak Park Heights, two high-security facilities where most of the assaults have taken place.

Department data show that overall staff assaults have steadily increased since 2014, when the agency recorded 27 individual staff victims. As of Oct. 19, the DOC had recorded 51 individual staff victims in 2018 whose cases qualified for criminal prosecution, compared to 59 in all of 2017.

And in the wake of a second on-duty death — Joseph Parise’s Sept. 24 collapse after rushing to help another officer under attack, now ruled a homicide — appeals for more funding have intensified.

Roy recently met with legislators to discuss staffing. Less than 48 hours later, two more assaults at the Oak Park Heights maximum-security prison left five employees hospitalized.

Three months earlier, Roy assured the public that the DOC had “not been asleep at the wheel when it comes to staff safety.” Many veteran officers scoff at that sentiment.

AFSCME Council 5, the union representing 2,500 state corrections officers, has blamed the violence on a lack of political will at the Capitol.

Last year, the DOC lobbied for more state money to hire 187 new corrections officers. The agency received funding for only 15, said DOC spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald.

Now union leaders say 327 additional uniformed staffers are needed to ensure reasonable safety — a request that would cost at least $20 million.

A legislator deeply versed in the issue acknowledged that, until now, there had been little urgency with so many other pressing budget issues.

“Fortunately, we hadn’t had this level of serious assaults in recent years, and it probably caused all of us ... to be a little bit lax in recognizing the risk,” said Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park, ranking DFL member of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. With the most recent deaths, the requests are likely to be met with more buy-in, he said.

Persistent warnings

The assaults alarm retired officer Guy Wicklander, who says the DOC has done little to improve security since the mid-1990s.

Nearly 20 years ago, the former industry foreman found himself without backup at Oak Park Heights. A prisoner serving a life sentence for murder attacked him from behind, bashing him over the head with a large crescent wrench. Had another inmate not intervened, he believes he’d probably be dead.

“There was no warning,” said Wicklander, who suffered a skull fracture and required 47 stitches. A wave of anxiety washed over him upon hearing about Gomm’s death. The circumstances of that beating reminded him of his own.

Current and ex-DOC employees say that for years, administrators have ignored pleas for more surveillance cameras and uniformed staff. DOC leaders counter that they must make spending decisions within budget constraints.

Campbell, who quit last summer after 11 years on the job, complained several times about security incidents in 2016 and 2017.

In one confidential report obtained by the Star Tribune, he wrote that inmates had access to “tools that could be used to aid in an escape,” which put staffers in jeopardy. He submitted work orders to install alarms, mirrors to increase visibility around corners and automated locking doors. He rarely got a response, he said.

In his exit survey, he decried what he called a lack of effort by managers to “correct potentially life-threatening issues.”

“Officers … feel like outcasts, and it’s gotten to the point they have stopped caring, and that makes for a dangerous environment,” he wrote.

Those stationed within the prison vocational program, MINNCOR Industries, say they were regularly forced to oversee large groups of offenders alone in order to meet contract deadlines on time.

“We’d just bite our tongues and go,” said Sgt. Joe Miller, who quit after Gomm’s death.

Last month, the DOC delayed reopening Stillwater’s industrial workshops and eliminated inmate access to heavy tools after 30 employees refused to work there, citing safety concerns. The agency determined “light assembly activities” like packaging were better suited for the facility’s security rating, Fitzgerald said.

A result of segregation?

No one is certain what’s driving the uptick in violence, but some workers suspect it’s connected to less punitive segregation policies.

Segregation is a common punishment that removes prisoners from the general population and places them in a single cell for up to 23 hours a day.

Before 2016, inmates who assaulted officers faced a maximum two-year segregation sentence. Amid a national push for reduced time in restrictive housing and after a Star Tribune investigation on the effects of prisoner isolation, the DOC transitioned last December to an experimental four-step behavioral program that allows offenders to more quickly regain privileges.

A vocal contingent of DOC staffers believes that change has made prisoners more dangerous. “Inmates will flat-out say, ‘I’ll only get 90 days if I punch you.’ They joke like that day to day,” Miller said.

Roy has defended the step-down programming as a “nationally recognized, balanced approach which emphasizes positive motivation techniques rather than punishing an individual for misconduct.” He declined an interview request with the Star Tribune but submitted written responses via e-mail.

Tim Henderson, associate director of AFSCME Council 5, said he understands the desire for reduced segregation, but he said he believes the policy wasn’t implemented with proper training or staff.

A job few will want?

Union leaders now fear it will become increasingly difficult to recruit and retain officers without major reforms. Henderson says starting wages aren’t as competitive as they used to be for new officers.

Minimum job requirements have also dipped about as low as they can go — a high school diploma and at least one year of work in any field.

Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, head of the House Public Safety Committee, said he knows people who planned to enter the field. “Now they’re really reconsidering,” he said.

Current staffers say the average $60,000 salary and state benefits are just enough to keep them there.

“If everybody had an out, they’d take it,” said Miller, who quit without another job lined up. “I can’t work for a department that I have no faith in.”